Know Your (Copy)rights: Tips for Writers and Bloggers

When I was starting out as a professional writer, taking workshops or just chatting around the cafeteria table, the question was a sure sign that you had an amateur on your hands:

"But what if an editor steals my stuff?"

These same newbies were more obsessed with where and how they should type their "© by..."  line than they were with writing something steal-able.

"Copyright is automatic," I'd sniff smugly, longing to add, "Believe me, you have nothing to worry about."

Of course, in those days, the IBM Selectric was the most advanced "word processor" available.

Email hadn't been born and the Internet was in diapers.

You mailed your article to your editor, maybe even couriered it -- or faxed it if the publication was particularly fancy.

Today, editors (and bloggers and other writers) do steal your stuff, because it's so easy, and because notions of right and wrong are in flux.

At the same time, thanks to the same technology that makes theft so commonplace, copyright law has become harder to understand.

If you're a writer, however, you have to at least try.

That's a tall order for me because, temperamentally, I'm inclined to think that 99% of laws are unnecessary at best and, at worst, have been passed by powerful swindlers to keep plebes like me from getting in on their con.

Take libel, for instance.

Libel is what we got when we abolished dueling.

(That's not my attempt at a witticism. It's literally true.)

Since they're nothing more than an ugly vestigial growth left over from the olden days, we should repeal all libel laws and bring back pistols at dawn.

This might at least deter the wealthy and powerful from using libel and slander laws to try to silence their political opponents.

(It would help, though, if the United States finally adopted a "user pays" system like literally the rest of the planet...)

Likewise, copyright laws (and philosophies) are anachronistic, arbitrary and too often used as punitive cudgels.

As  Joe Karaganis noted in National Review:

All of this is a far cry from the narrow purposes of intellectual property (IP) outlined in the Constitution and early copyright law. The first U.S. copyright law, passed in 1790, established a 14-year term of protection, renewable for another 14 years.

It was about short-term incentives — about weighing monopolies on speech against its “natural condition” of circulation. Over the past century, this prioritization of the public domain was reversed.

Now we have copyright terms that make the public domain a mostly historical artifact, a century out of date. Now we can challenge the imperfect control of the Internet that enables piracy but also allows free speech.

Here are some juicy examples of copyright b.s., as curated by

  • The congressman who sponsored the Stop Online Piracy Act posted stolen images on his website
  • Singer Lily Allen campaigned against music piracy by ripping off someone's Techdirt article
  • "Nicolas Sarkozy is the pirate his laws are meant to eliminate"
  • The dude who planned JFK's trip to Dallas declared that there's no such thing as fair use -- on behalf of a giant media corporation that breaks the same anti-piracy laws it lobbied for
  • An incident involving Viacom I can barely explain
  • Particularly crazy examples of YouTube takedown notices

I've got one that's rather closer to home.

In 2008, I was sued -- along with Ezra Levant and other Canadian conservative bloggers -- for criticizing a former employee of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

This fellow used to sign into neo-Nazi websites, pretend to be a neo-Nazi, engage other neo-Nazis in online conversations -- then charge them with posting "hate speech."

He wasn't happy with us for blogging about his "Nazi hunting," so along with suing me, he served FreeDominion (a sort of sister site to FreeRepublic) and the National Post, the only Canadian newspaper to report somewhat sympathetically on our activities.

After making some brave sounding "solidarity forever" noises, the National Post turned traitor and folded like a cheap newspaper.

The rest of us are still fighting the suit.

Then last year, the National Post teamed up with The Guy Who Is Suing Us, to sue... Free Dominion.

For "copyright violation."

You see, that website had cut and pasted a lengthy section of a National Post story about The Guy Who Is Suing Us, and that, you see, was a no-no.

Now, do you really think that lawsuit was about preserving precious and inviolable intellectual property rights?

Or about a couple of Goliaths stomping on David?

Free Dominion "won," but it cost them thousands of dollars to fight, and taxpayers thousands of dollars to adjudicate.

You'd think that as a (cough!) creator, I'd be super-vigilant about copyright.

I don't want my work stolen, do I?

Well, it depends.

If you lift one of my PJ Media articles, stick your name on it, and sell it to another outlet, I'll go after you and the magazine. Politely at first.

Then, if necessary, I'll call down my battalion of readers and followers and shame you into submission.

If you copy and paste a couple of my paragraphs into your blog post without a hat tip, I'll be peeved (assuming I ever notice) and probably leave a "Just wondering..." comment under the post.

If I feel so inclined, I'll escalate the mockery to Twitter, Facebook and my own blog (and those of my friends).

When Canadian newspapers steal my blogger-husband's original investigative reporting without credit, that's how we respond. Public shaming is fun.

So is getting paid, like this other blogger did when he got ripped off by a minor MSM outlet.

But if you "steal" an expression I've coined or repeat one of my jokes, even uncredited, I'm flattered.

I'll say so on my blog, too.

I wanted my idea to get out there, didn't I?

I'm not a lawyer, and you should always consult a libel attorney if you're in doubt about whether or not something you've written is "illegal."

But for what it's worth, here's my advice for writers:

Get libel insurance. (It often comes bundled with your household policy.)

Stay on top of the latest developments in copyright law, libel, slander, trademarks and patents.

And remember that no matter how careful you are, if you're any good at all:

You'll get in trouble for something you write, some day.

Don't let analysis paralysis keep you from being a writer, like those folks I mentioned at the beginning.

For all I know, they're still sitting at that cafeteria table, spooking each other like kids around a campfire.

Meanwhile, I'm just about to hit "send" on another article...